The Santa Fe Opera presented Verdi’s Rigoletto on August 25, 2015. The virtues of Verdi’s masterpiece are too well known to warrant repetition. The success of this opera depends on the interpretive powers of its three principals and the leadership of the conductor. But it is the baritone who sings the title role who carries the heaviest burden.
Verdi seemingly wrote more great baritone parts than all the rest of the composers of operas combined. Every one of Verdi’s great operas has a great baritone part in it. Falstaff has two. But of all these towering parts for the baritone voice none reaches as high as Rigoletto. It is the supreme test of the Verdi baritone. When a singer attempts it he does battle with the shades of Tita Ruffo and Leonard Warren – an intimidating prospect.
So how did the up and coming American Quinn Kelsey do? Very well. He has a large and focused baritone that is easy in its top range, an essential characteristic for a Verdi baritone. As good as Kelsey was he can get even better. He can sing softly with full vocal support an admirable quality for Verdi, but only when the situation requires this type of singing. The Vendetta Duet which ends the 2nd act is not one of them. Kelsey elected to start the duet softly which is exactly the opposite of what this screaming cry for vengeance demands. This approach greatly diminished the effect of the duet. Also Kelsey’s high note at the end somehow got lost while that of soprano Georgia Jarman remained.
Kelsey (or the conductor) elected to eliminate some (but not all) of the interpolated high notes that are often inserted into this part. He also omitted the cries of “Gilda” that Rigoletto commonly utters after he realizes his daughter has been kidnapped. I know they’re not in the score, but I think they add to the drama of the situation just as do the interpolated high Cs in the Il Trovatore stretta which are likewise not in the score. Finally, his voice was not quite as big at the opera’s end as it was at its start. Rigoletto is a taxing role and few can get through it without some diminution of vocal emission.
I don’t want these criticisms to take away from the splendid performance that Kelsey gave. His is a major talent that may take him to the pinnacle of Verdi baritones. When a singer is as good as Kelsey is, the audience should expect more than lesser singers can give. His acting was very effective despite Director Lee Blakeley repetitively making him remove and replace his upper garments. This was a bit of business that only added distraction. So keep your eye (or ear) on this 37 year old American baritone. The Verdi world seems his for the taking.
The Duke is one of the few leading roles that has the tenor as the villain. The Duke walks through life leaving mayhem in his wake while nothing bad ever happens to him. Every great tenor wants to sing the part. The rising young American tenor Bryan Hymel was supposed to sing most of the performances of this run of Rigoletto, but apparently was too tired to make it to the mountain home of the Santa Fe company. So Bruce Sledge replaced him. Hymel’s problem may be more than exhaustion. He has been singing very heavy roles which may have done more to his voice than tire it.
Sledge has a light lyric tenor which is pushed to, but nor beyond, its limit by Verdi’s charming psychopath. He has all the notes and sings with security. His problem is that he lacks a powerful or beautiful tone. The Santa Fe Opera was lucky to have his services at their last minute call.
Soprano Georgia Jarman has a lyric soprano of great beauty and flexibility combined with a volume that is astonishing in a lyric soprano. ‘Caro nome’ was sung to perfection as was the rest of her part. She is a former Santa Fe apprentice who is going to make a big career. Given the size of her voice I suspect she will move the heavier Verdi roles with time.
Peixin Chen and Nicole Piccolomini were fine as the nefarious siblings who cheat Rigoletto and murder Gilda. The remainder of the cast were all up to the high standards typical of the Santa Fe Opera.
Conductor Jader Bignamini made his American debut in this run of Rigoletto. He is a real find. Verdi requires a conductor who can get great vigor and dramatic impact from the orchestra while allowing the singers room to realize the lyrical parts of their roles. He succeeded on all counts. He seems certain to move to opera’s biggest arenas.
Director Blakeley moved the time of the story from the Renaissance to that of the Risorgimento. Why I don’t know. Directors seem compelled to move the time line of every opera they stumble across.
The sets were on a revolving stage. Always a bad sign in opera. Of course when the stage revolved it creaked and groaned like an old sailing ship. The set itself looked like a wedding cake that had been out in the rain for two days and then had the largest tom-cat in the neighborhood sit on top of it. No matter Verdi’s music and the fine performances carried the day.
An entomological aside. The desert crickets must be Verdi lovers. They were out in full force. I counted as many as 100 chirps per minute and would estimate their decibel level at about 40 to 50 units. In summary, a fine performance of Verdi’s quasi Greek tragedy – the protagonist undone by his tragic virtue.
Rigoletto – Quinn Kelsey
The Duke of Mantua – Bruce Sledge
Gilda – Georgia Jarman
Maddalena – Nicole Piccolomini
Count Monterone – Robert Pomakov
Sparafucile – Peixin Chen
Conductor – Jader Bignamini
Director – Lee Blakeley
Scenic Designer – Adrian Linford
Costume Designer – Adrian Linford
Lighting Designer – Rick Fisher
Chorus Master – Susanne Sheston
Choreographer – Nicola Bowie